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Autistic Burnout - Supporting Young People At Home & School

Updated: Feb 4

Child sat on floor with head in hands

This is a revised and updated version of the article I previously published with Thinking Person's Guide to Autism 'Supporting Your Young Person Through Autistic Burnout' (Sep 2023). Click here to download 'Autistic Burnout: A Family Guide' (137-page PDF resource)

Being autistic is not an illness or a disorder in itself, but being autistic can have an impact on a person's mental and physical health. This is due to the often unmet needs of living in a world that is generally designed for the well-being of people who are not autistic. In addition, three-quarters of autistic children also have other types of neurodivergence (Lang et al. 2024); this can make life even more difficult for those people. The difficulties young autistic and other multiply neurodivergent people are experiencing are reflected in the devastating current UK school attendance data. The research from Connolly et al. (2023) showed 'that 92.1% of those with school attendance difficulties are neurodivergent. 83.4% are autistic'. The Not Fine in School: Family Support for School Attendance Difficulties FaceBook group currently has a staggering and upsetting figure of over 51K members. School Attendance January 2024 began with a new poster campaign from the Department for Education to tackle attendance issues. Unfortunately this is potentially going to be at a huge cost to children's physical and mental health unless people have a better understanding of neurodivergent children's needs and adopt a trauma informed approach. According to data gathered by The Guardian (Weale, 09/01/2024), more than a fifth (21.2%) of pupils in England are what is described as being 'persistently absent' (missing 10% or more school sessions) across the autumn and spring terms 2022-23. There is not any data to know how many of these young people may be experiencing autistic burnout, however, I would imagine it would likely be a high proportion. Children do well when and if they can, (Greene, 2008). No child wants to miss out on friendships and learning opportunitie s and experience mental health difficulties. Research by O'Halloran (2022) showed 25% of autistic youth experienced suicidal ideation. School attendance at all costs is dangerous. We need to be aware of and understanding the implications to mental and physical health of unmet mends that is causing long term trauma and costing lives. It is not as easy as 'just' getting children into school by either rewards or sanctions. If it were that simple, we would not have such a problem. Parents and carers do not want to have to give up their careers because their children can no longer go to school, and teachers want their children to be engaged and able to learn. Unmet needs in school have huge implications that ripple out and affect family relationships and finances, it can cause long-term trauma for everyone involved. There is evidently something not working, and children and young people's lives are being painfully affected by an education system that is not meeting the needs of all children and is not neurodiversity-affirming. Many of these young people could be experiencing Autistic Burnout; it is important to understand and recognise Autistic Burnout so children can access better support and, ideally, be in an environment that does not lead to burnout in the first place. The work by McGreevey et al. (2023) demonstrates how we can meet the care needs of autistic people in a sensitive, humanistic, neurodiversity-affirming way that will benefit everyone.

If your child is going through Autistic Burnout, they will need your support. They will need acceptance, understanding, compassion and flexibility. It will help to have an increase in sensory regulation time and a decrease in demands both from home and school environments. People can heal from Autistic Burnout, but it takes time, and changes may be needed to support recovery. This article will look at different types of Autistic Burnout, some signs of burnout and suggestions for supporting a young person through Autistic Burnout.

This short article will help you understand more about Autistic Burnout. I will share some ways to support young autistic people experiencing school attendance difficulties and burnout at home and in school.

Types of Autistic Burnout

Autistic Burnout is caused by social and sensory demands outweighing an individual’s capacity to manage. For many children, this is presented in the typical after-school meltdown or “coke bottle” scenario where a build-up of unmet needs and the stress of the day suddenly explodes when your child is in their safe space again, with a person they feel safe and secure with (some children may experience this internally as a shutdown instead of a meltdown).

There is also a longer-term, more intense Autistic Burnout, such as that described by Kieran Rose as a “crash” where you “keep on crashing.” This happens to children as well as adults. If your child has got to the point where they are finding it difficult to continue their usual daily routines, including going to school and social activities, managing their usual day-to-day tasks, struggling with self-care and if you find that perhaps their sleep and eating are also affected, then it may be they are experiencing a more severe, intense Autistic Burnout which will take much longer to recover from. The cumulative effect of unmet needs over a long period can lead to more serious mental health difficulties.

What is Autistic Burnout?

Autistic educator Judy Endow describes Autistic Burnout as a “state of physical and mental fatigue, heightened stress, and diminished capacity to manage life skills, sensory input, and social interactions, which comes from years of being severely overtaxed by the strain of trying to live up to demands that are out of sync with our needs.”

Phung et al. (2021) interviewed Autistic young people who used words such as “exhaustion, feeling stuck, frozen and being entirely overwhelmed” to describe how burnout felt for them.

Arnold et al. (2023), in their articles Confirming the Nature of Autistic Burnout and Towards the Measurement of Autistic Burnout state, “Autistic Burnout is a debilitating syndrome preceded by an overload of life stressors and the daily challenge of existing in a neurotypical world.” They concluded that their research and other recent studies “show autistic people experience a combination of exhaustion, withdrawal and problems with their concentration and thinking. Burnout seems to be linked to the stress experienced by autistic people in their daily lives.”

Signs of Autistic Burnout

Research is only just starting to emerge about Autistic Burnout, and there is very little about Autistic Burnout and young people. However, in the recent study by Arnold et al. (2023), the ten most frequent reasons cited for Autistic Burnout in adults were:

  1. I felt extremely tired or worn out.

  2. I was mentally exhausted.

  3. I withdrew from social situations.

  4. I had difficulties doing my usual work as well as I typically do

  5. I felt overwhelmed by my environment.

  6. I found it more challenging to relate socially to people.

  7. I was physically exhausted during the day.

  8. I found some of the following more distressing than usual: Sudden or loud noises bright or flickering lights.

  9. Communicating with others took more work than usual.

  10. I had difficulties with my school or academic tasks.

The AASPIRE Autistic Burnout Study describes the key features of Autistic Burnout as a “loss of skills.” However, this loss of skills could also be viewed more as a difference in managing attention and energy resources whilst in burnout and prioritising survival mode.

They list the key features of Autistic Burnout as a change of:

  • Cognition, executive function, memory, speech/communication, ability to cope, ability to do things once could do

  • Increased sensitivity to sensory stimulus, to sensory overload, to change to social stimulus

  • Increased autistic behaviour (e.g., stimming)

  • More frequent meltdowns/shutdowns

  • Chronic exhaustion

From my personal parenting and teaching experience, I would also add that the following are possible signs of Autistic Burnout for children:

  • Changes to diet and eating

  • Changes to sleep patterns

  • Changes to sensory perception

  • Emotional changes: may be more tearful /connection-seeking/ angry /frustrated

  • A need for more autonomy and control

  • Executive functioning difficulties escalated

  • More information for Young People about Autistic Burnout can be found here:

Many of the signs and symptoms of Autistic Burnout could also be an indication of something else going on or other possible health conditions (including PANS/ PANDAS if there has been a sudden onset of symptoms). It is important to always seek professional advice if you have any concerns. Supporting Your Young Person Through Autistic Burnout

If you recognise that your child or young person is experiencing some signs of Autistic Burnout, it is important to get professional advice and see your doctor or GP. It is important to rule out any other medical or health concerns. 

It may also help to implement some neurodivergent-friendly lifestyle changes and adopt what is described as a “low-demand parenting approach.”

1. Low Demand Parenting

Ross Greene famously said, “Kids do well if they can.” It is up to us as parents and carers to allow a space for our children to do well, meet their needs and thrive. Low-demand parenting is not about “giving in.” It is about prioritising and accommodating needs. There is always a plan b….or even plan x, y, or z!

A low-demand approach reduces the likelihood and will help lessen the severity of Autistic Burnout.

It will help if you can be more flexible, reduce demands, give more time and space around the events of the day, consider putting children’s sensory needs first, and adopt a co-regulation technique.

2. Understanding Monotropism

Monotropism is a theory of autism developed by Murray, Lesser, and Lawson in their article Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism (2005). They suggest that autistic minds focus more energy (resources) on a smaller number of things at any one time. 

Autistic and Autistic ADHD people are likely to be more monotropic than others (Garuau et al., 2023).

If your child is monotropic, it may feel quite distressing and may take a lot of energy for them to switch channels of attention to different tasks/activities. Without careful planning and support, this could have a detrimental impact on mental health.

In a school setting, monotropism could be a reason why many autistic young people struggle to move from subject to subject, changing classes/teachers and transitioning between different events of the day; more support may be needed.

At home, what you may consider a simple request may be quite stressful for your autistic child, such as suddenly expecting them to stop engaging in their play when they are in a total flow state to suddenly come and sit down for a family meal or get in the car to go shopping with you.

Be Flexible: If your young person has a monotropic way of thinking and processing the world, you will need more flexibility and time around transitions in the day to help them move more smoothly between attention channels.

Having more time around events in the day (attention tunnels), talking things through in advance, having visual reminders and planners, and flexibility will help manage monotropic flow states and help the day run a bit easier. You may find fewer moments of sensory overload (shutdowns/meltdowns), and your child is a bit more regulated; this will help reduce anxiety and, over time, could help to prevent Autistic Burnout.

Wood’s (2019) research has shown how beneficial it can be for young people to engage in their personal interests in educational settings, which can help improve their well-being and educational outcomes. However, some children really benefit from keeping their personal interests separate from school and education, we really have to listen to our children to find out what works for them.

It is also important not to use children's interests as an incentive/ reward or as part of a positive behaviour support (PBS) approach for any school attendance difficulties they may be experiencing (link to information about PBS from AMASE here). Monotropic passions are valuable and an intrinsic part of a person's autistic identity. If an autistic person is not able to rest, recharge and recover through their interest-led activities, it could lead to a deeper autistic burnout and take longer to heal. The research by Rapaport et al (2023) draws attention to the importance of 'finding a balance' between engaging in flow states and being able to manage the demands of life. It would be interesting to have research between monotropic hyperfocus and autistic passions that bring joy and are meaningful and find out if the same monotropic way of thinking could lead to negative thought loops and further exacerbate mental health difficulties for some people. For those children experiencing autistic burnout, allowing more time for children to rest and recharge by engaging in their interests and lowering other demands could really improve their mental health. Understanding how monotropism may affect autistic / ADHD people and giving children more autonomy over their day can help to reduce anxiety and improve their well-being, giving space for healing from autistic burnout. Murray (2023) discusses Monotropism and Well-Being in more detail in the Scottish Autism Research Group 2023 Meeting.

3. Meeting Sensory Needs

Increase Sensory Regulation Time and Decrease Demands

You need to do what is right for you and your family; it can be hard to let go of how you feel you “should” be parenting, and you may feel judged by others for parenting “differently.” However, it is important to consider your child’s sensory profile and to meet their sensory needs. A more regulated child is happier, which will help reduce the likelihood of Autistic Burnout.

If your child plays a lot of online gaming, it may mean they need to do this longer and more frequently if it helps them regulate. Equally, if your child loves climbing, spinning, and other types of play, this may be their way of self-regulating and coping and could help regulation and reduce burnout. Engaging in your monotropic interests can be rejuvenating and re-energising; it can help balance the sensory system.

If anxiety escalates, adopting a co-regulation technique will help; let your calm meet their storm and feelings of being overwhelmed. Autistic needs fluctuate and what works one day may not work the next. Meeting your child where they are at in that moment and just trying to do what you need to do to get to the next moment will help everyone, including your own mental health.

Risk of “Just” One More

If you feel your child is going through Autistic Burnout, they will already be at full capacity. If you try to push for " just" one more activity or "just" one more day of school, they will likely burn out even more quickly. If children are autistic they will already have less energy capacity compared to their non autistic peers in school. If they are constantly living in fight/ flight/ freeze/ fawn mode they are already struggling, there is effectively no more energy reserves to do more than try and live survival mode. They may experience more sensory and social overwhelm, more meltdowns/shutdowns and eventually, they could head into Autistic Burnout. Autistic Burnout can lead to other mental and physical health difficulties if not enough time is given to heal the sensory system.

Masking - “They Seem Fine in School”

Schools often say they don’t see a problem, and children seem “fine” in school. This may be due to what is called “autistic masking”, where your child (subconsciously or consciously) may try to fit in with their peers and keep their authentic autistic self suppressed in school in order to feel safe. This is only sustainable for short periods; masking is exhausting and can lead to mental health difficulties.

An education at the cost of mental & physical ill health is not worth the risk.

School staff, parents/carers and young people all need to work together to create a plan that will work for the young person and support them through this time. This can be achieved by decreasing pressures and demands and giving them time to rest and recover in their own way that meets their individual needs. It can sometimes take weeks, months or even longer to recover from Autistic Burnout.

It is also important to consider that some autistic people may find it difficult to understand their own internal body signals (interoception) and may experience difficulties understanding their own emotions and those of others, too (alexithymia). This can make things more difficult for young people and may make it hard for them to explain how they feel and what help they need and to be able to regulate.

Supporting a Young Person Through an Autistic Burnout Crisis

If your child is experiencing an Autistic Burnout crisis, remember that this is not your fault as a parent and not your child’s fault. Autistic Burnout is serious and can lead to depression, self harm, eating and sleep related issues and other mental health difficulties. Autistic Burnout results from the demands in life exceeding capacity to manage. The demands that lead to burnout could be a combination of school, home, sensory, social and communication demands; this world can be very overwhelming, especially if you're autistic!

What To Do Next

  • Try to reduce self-expectations as a parent/carer (it can be stressful living up to what you think you 'should' be doing and confirming to the expectations of society that don't meet the needs of your own family).

  • Lower demands for the whole family.

  • Contact your doctor/GP for a referral to your local mental health service if needed.

  • Contact the doctor/GP if you feel you need support for yourself.

  • Local Autism charities may have shorter waiting times and be able to offer support.

  • Meet with the school; they may not have heard of Autistic Burnout, but this doesn’t mean they won’t be able to help.

  • Thriving Autistic have a useful directory of neurodivergent practitioners

  • Remember, this won’t be forever; take it moment by moment. Despite everyone's care and best efforts some children may continue to struggle in school, but they could thrive in an alternative setting or by accessing education other than at school. Even when children may seem better, unless things have significantly changed then going back into the same environment is likely to lead children back into another burnout cycle.

Look After Yourself

It can be exhausting caring for and trying to meet the needs of any child; if your child is also Autistic and is in Autistic Burnout, it is also important to think about your own mental health needs so you can support theirs.

There are many wonderful Autistic and neurodiversity-affirming communities online that can support you and your family and provide further signposting and information. 
With acceptance, compassion, flexibility, time, and support, your child can heal and will be able to move through Autistic Burnout.

Things can get better! Signposting Ausome Training

Autistic Girls Network 

Autistic Parents UK Autistic Realms

Emergent Divergence  

Literally Ausome  

National Autistic Society

NeuroBears* Not Fine In School PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide has published a really valuable Autistic Burnout resource: The PDA Space* Reframing Autism - Autistic Burnout Self-Care Strategies

Viv Dawes, Autistic Advocate*

I am also now honoured to be an affiliate for The Autistic Advocate,Kieran Rose. Their webinar below 'Meltdowns, Shutdowns & Burnout In Autistic Children & Young People in Education' may be of interest and further develop understanding and ways to support young people.

Author’s note: I am a parent and a qualified primary teacher. I am not a medical or mental health professional. If you recognise that your child or young person is experiencing some signs of Autistic Burnout, it is important to get professional advice and see your GP; it is important to rule out any other medical or health concerns.


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